254: Definitions: “Immortality” (Margaret Atwood)

                “If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out the fear, and you’ll be…” -Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

                You’ll be immortal, at least by Crake’s definition.
                I spend a lot of time in my definitions. “Productive.” “Happy.” “Kind.” “Responsible.” It’s hard to know where else to be: when I walk into a room, I usually use one of the gaps I call a door, and I sit on one of the constructions I call a chair, even though philosophers (being awesome) have argued this out, questioning whether I can really define either category. I’ve had the argument: I couldn’t. Not knowing exactly where to put the boundaries for “chair” (can a stone be a chair? How about an indent in the wall? How sloped can the seat be—40°? 50°?) can feel like a gimmick, like well I can’t find the right words right now but I’m sure they’re out there, until suddenly it feels like something more. My definitions, the spaces I move through and stay in, are pretty shaky: my patterns help me along, help me choose directions and recognize similarities, but they also hide connections, overemphasize characteristics, blind me to another kind of “obvious.”And of course, my definitions could be otherwise.
                “Immortal” is a “not-” definition. I wonder if we often turn to that trick when we’re not sure exactly what we mean. We mean something different from dying, from what we think we’re experiencing now. What we mean follows from our imagination of ourselves, our conception of what we are and what we wish we could be. Immortal. In Atwood’s book, Crake creates a kind of almost-human who will live healthily, without aging or lessening, until one day when its rigged ‘biological clock’ will click over to dead. These creatures will never think of their own being, or their own ending; they’ll never be afraid. Isn’t that, he asks, what we meant?
                Reading Atwood, and living through these strange times, I wonder which other places to sit. I wonder which other ways to talk. I wonder which of my definitions I want to radically (celebratorily? Wildly? Whimsically? Wonderfully? Wanderfully?) redefine. The usual list comes up: “success” (a word I’ve always hated; one succeeds at clear tasks, at production, but when did we decide one could ‘succeed’ at life), “happiness,” “love,” “work,” “freedom,” “responsibility,” “safety,” “duty,” “worth,” “self worth.” Redefining any of these is hard. Redefining any of these is a door, or what might be a door, or a gap between two trees, and on the other side—well, it’s hard to see from here, isn’t it?

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